Volume III - 1995-1996

The Imagination: Where Roles and Images Reside
An Interview with Dr. Robert Landy

      Dr. Robert Landy is Associate Professor and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at New York University. He became Editor-in-Chief of The Arts in Psychotherapy in 1992.

      Editor's Note: For the past several years, Dr. Landy has been developing a taxonomy of roles and counter-roles based in Western dramatic literature. He has defined "role" as "the container of all the thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves and others in our social and imaginary worlds" (1990). Examples of these roles are the hero and villain, the victor and victim, the loving mother and the woman who destroys her children. He comes up with a total of 84 basic roles, which he presents in his book, Persona and Performance: The Meaning of Role in Drama, Therapy and Everyday Life and in the various articles listed in the bibliography. According to Landy, the roles represent different parts of the personality and can be used in helping people to understand the psychodynamics of themselves and their relationships with others. This interview was conducted on January 25, 1995 at New York University by Clyde Coreil. "JILL" is The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning.

JILL: Can your taxonomy be used by ordinary teachers in creative writing activities, that is, asking students to write about specific roles and their counterparts ?

Landy: That's a great question. Let me start this way. The whole idea of a taxonomy is concerned with this question: What is a human being? In some ways we are talking about a theory of personality. If it is true that a human being is a collection of roles, and that each role represents a discrete piece of the personality, then that might imply that the reading and writing of literature is a way of exploring roles, searching for roles, discovering roles, expanding roles. So that if I read a piece of literature, what appeals to me often is several roles within that piece that somehow correspond to something that's going on inside of me. I'm making an identification. I also find that kids--adolescents or even younger--respond to a piece of literature or film or television program because it speaks to something inside of them. I call that something "role."

      So, back to your question about how the taxonomy can be useful in creative writing. One can access part of oneself, or one role that is more predominant than others. The task of a teacher would be to discover which roles in a student need to be seen, need to be heard. And then say, "Okay, let's write a piece about that role or write a piece "in role." I might be concerned with power/powerless issues. My student is worried about how strong he is vis-à-vis the other kids in his class. As a teacher, I say, "Okay, that's an issue that's going on in the school and/or class right now. Why don't you write about two characters--one of whom is very powerful and one whom is very powerless. We'll see what happens. Or, why don't half of you write from the point of view of the powerful one, and half, from the point of view of the powerless one. You can, for example, write a first-person narrative in role or about the role." Either way would be a very powerful way of using the taxonomy.

JILL: Can you make that more concrete with an example?

Landy: Yes. The taxonomy--in the way I was just talking about--can also be a way of teaching "point of view." I remember an incident when I was a graduate student at the University of California. I had a friend who was teaching freshman composition. The lesson was about observation and writing from a specific point of view. He said to me, "You're a drama person. Would you be willing to stage some unexpected scene in the middle of class. The students would not be told about this beforehand. I'll ask them to write about it from their point of view."

      Well, I was reading Lewis Carroll at the time, and I made up this story and planned something that I did not tell him about. I was going to be a person who had come to class expecting to hear a lecture about Lewis Carroll, and I would get very combative with him if he told me I was in the wrong room. I decided to come in the role of the White Rabbit. I dressed up as a Victorian English professor. I had a little umbrella and a three-piece suit, and I was very high-strung. The qualities I brought in were those of the White Rabbit. I would look at my watch constantly and keep saying, "I'm late. I'm late." I came in and said, "Look, I'm here for the lecture about Lewis Carroll." Without batting an eye, he said this was a class in composition and that I must have the wrong room. I said, "No, no, no. I got this information from reliable sources a long time ago, and I know I'm right. You people are in the wrong room and must leave immediately. This is where the lecture on Lewis Carroll will be held." We argued vehemently about it, and I angrily stormed out of the room. And then he asked the students to write about that incident. He asked them if they were concerned or empathetic. Had they seen this as an honest mistake? Or did they think that this fellow was really a madman. Later, he told them that it had been staged. But it really made a point. I was using "role" to bring about a dramatic, conflictual episode that made a lasting impression on the persons involved. That's whimsical. Roles can also be used in a more directed way in creative writing.

JILL: For example...?

Landy: For example, if a group of students read Moby Dick, the teacher might ask, "Who is Ismael?" After an exploration of Melville's character and perhaps the Biblical Ismael, students can be asked to write a story as if they were characters with Ismael-like qualities. Their stories could begin, "Call me Ismael."

JILL: Ismael embodies a role in your taxonomy. Briefly, what is that role?

Landy: He could embody several roles--that's the beauty of the taxonomy. Right now, I would say that he is a lost one, unsure of his place in the universe. But he is also a searcher, a wanderer, on some sort of spiritual journey. As such, he embodies qualities of the hero.

JILL: How did your taxonomy come about?

Landy: My taxonomy is based on a wide-ranging study of Western dramatic literature. I had a hunch that certain basic role types were repeated over and over again. I've read more than 600 plays, and I've seen probably a thousand in my life. I started to pick out roles of fool and hero and the like, and I began to see certain common qualities in them. People have written about literature in terms of character types. Freud, for instance, speaks at length about Oedipus and Moses as embodying universal psychological qualities. And Carol Pearson has written several books about archetypal characters. She does an analysis of female characters in Western literature, and she comes up with a sense of repeated role types. If that's true of literature, then it's also probably true of stories that people write. If we can make a connection between what's going on inside of people and the characters they read about or see in their external lives, then I think we have a powerful way of writing stories--interesting stories that come from a very personal place.

JILL: The holding up of such roles would seem to offer an opportunity for self-discovery.

Landy: Yes, exactly. And it would also point to the fact that creative writing is a means of self-discovery, a clearer way of knowing who we are and what matters to us.

JILL: If I am not mistaken, the way you conceive roles is important in classical Greek drama.

Landy: In classical Greek tragedy, actors played character types, such as king and queen, hero and villain, by means of wearing stylized masks and costumes. In classical Greek comedy, masks also represented various character types.

JILL: Is there any danger involved in making the students aware of the different roles that they are playing in life? Or is that just parallel to other aspects of self-discovery that go on in school all the time?

Landy: I don't think there's any danger. I think that what should be pointed out to students, however, is the distinction between prototype, which is a universal figure of cultural significance, and a stereotype, which is a way of reducing timelessness to a current set of cultural prejudices. And I think that's just a point of definition. People tend to stereotype both themselves and others. That is, some people will need to be seen as greater or less than someone else in order to feel more secure. We stereotype because we need bad guys, villains, people who are stopping me from getting what I want. Now, stereotypes are useful in looking at literature and also in completing writing assignments. We all have stereotypes and biases. It's very useful for all of us to know them, because we are then able to apply our awareness of biases for particular ends--that is, to expose the prejudices of others and ourselves. However, when one plays with stereotype in the name of prototype, then that's not dangerous but problematic. Because often people mistake a stereotype for the genuine article, that is, the prototype. For example, some people with racist tendencies will write a story about the Blacks or the Mexicans or the Jews but actually think their stereotypes are prototypes.

      On the other hand, I can write a story about racism from the point of view of being a racist, mindful of prototypes and of the distinction between my narrative voice and my beliefs in everyday life. I can do this knowing that in any culture, one needs to have villains and to vilify others for certain reasons. The Nazi's had their villains, and many Mississippians in the 1950's had theirs. Everybody has his or her own personal villains. So, even though we need villains, we should be aware of how we vilify others and what the effects of that are on them and us. Writing about a stereotype, that is, seeing someone as the dark figure in our lives is one thing. But how we write about it is also very important. We can see it as a need for villains, or a need for an explanation of why we, feeling inferior, need to feel superior. Stereotyping is a very human need which, in itself, is not immoral in that there seems to be an almost innate need to objectify and reduce. But writing or reading a piece that feeds into our own sense of prejudice--that kind of stereotyping can become problematic if we do it in a non-critical way. Using the taxonomy can be a way of understanding prototypes. Again, these can become stereotypes if we are not aware of how we are using or playing these roles.

JILL: Could you talk more about the difference between a prototype and a stereotype?

Landy: A prototype is a Platonic ideal. It's either something that exists in heaven or inside of us. It's a way of understanding human nature. No human being can at any time grasp the totality of human nature. We can grasp pieces of it. And we need to slow down this complexity and understand how the parts have certain value. What writers do, especially creative writers, is try to capture parts of the human psyche and encapsulate them and give them meaning in terms of what I would call "prototypes." In most plays, you have a hero and a villain. There is some conflict created by these two prototypical characters. And even the most humanly drawn, complex characters have a certain "typical" quality to them. Even Hamlet, who is extraordinarily complex, is the typical ambivalent person. He's also many other things. The man of ambivalence becomes the man of action ultimately. And he's also the prototypical hero--a person on a search to find out something hidden from his awareness, and willing to risk what might happen as he proceeds along that path. So I'd say these are all prototypes: heroes, villains, fools, wise people, and so forth. And I think we all have a need for prototypes in order to understand certainly who we are and how the world works.

      Watch the two most newsworthy events of yesterday on television or in the press--the trial of O. J. Simpson and the drama in the government of the United States as President Clinton gives his State of the Union Message to a pretty hostile Republican House that is controlled by this perhaps-fool, perhaps-genius Newt Gingrich. These are very interesting dramas that are being played out. The prosecution wants the public to believe that O.J. Simpson is a murderer and a dark, demonic figure. A type of bad guy. The defense wants the public to believe that the alleged victimizer is actually the victim, someone who has been framed, someone who is a fall guy--another Black unjustly accused. The reason why everybody is so excited by this trial is that the prototypes are in the spotlight. However, it is also exciting for people to subliminally indulge in stereotypical thinking--that is, that all Blacks are violent or all rich and famous people can buy justice, or all lawyers are manipulators of the truth.

JILL: You said a few minutes ago that ambivalence leads to action. At what point does that happen? When a decision is made?

Landy: This is where the whole thing becomes more complex. Much of the criticism that I've received for presenting these ideas can be summarized easily: "Landy, you are skating too much on the thin ice of stereotyping. Types are types are types. When people begin to deal with types, they lose the human being and are talking about abstractions." My response is that, in fact, although the taxonomy splits dramatic literature into 84 role types, the idea is that when these are played out, they exist in a paradoxical relationship to one another. So, in order to play the victimizer, one must have some sense of what it means to be a victim. In order to play the victim, one must have some sense of what it might be like to be the victimizer or victor--the one who has power and can rise above one's victimization.

      All of these roles exist in a paradoxical relationship. When I talk about healthy functioning, I mean learning to live within one's role ambivalence, with the contradictions between the roles. So that if one claims to be pious and preaches a moral message, one can only be truly pious if one has confronted one's more negative impulses, more demonic features. In my drama therapy practice, when I treat individuals and groups, I don't simply try to help them overcome something, to resolve issues in their lives. I also try to get them to conceive of the issue in terms of the roles involved. I want to help them understand that to live comfortably, one must find a way to live within the ambivalence of roles. If people come into therapy because they feel very powerless, the question isn't how do I get them to resolve their feelings of victimization, but rather how do I help them find a way to live within the ambivalence of victim and victor.

JILL: The objectifying of one's situation that results from conceiving of it as a role--that would seem to provide a valuable breathing space. An individual would be acting out psychological roles that are not the same as the sense of the self. Is that part of it?

Landy: Ah, well. In my theory there is no self. It's a very post-modern theory that as human beings, we are made up of complex, interactive paradoxical pieces. And that a concept of a whole, a monotheistic world, is gone. We are too fragmented and too scattered and too refracted to be just one thing. That's the point of view that works best for me as a drama therapist and a writer, one who comes from a literary background. If you read a very populated Dickens novel or a Shakespearean play, you find that the full world represented is peopled by many different types. If you were to put them all together, you might find a very complex structure, but not necessarily one thing, one personality, or one vision.

JILL: You just answered, I believe, my next question: Is the concept of the self a role?

Landy: No. I wouldn't say that. Jung posits a self as one piece of his system. But no, the self is not a role. I find that the self is a problematic concept because people want to believe so desperately that a human being is one thing, or that there is a core self, a core piece of a human being. And I think at the bottom, at the depths of the human psyche is the potential to generate role as opposed to a self. Now some people might want to say, "Well, that's the self." And I would say, "Okay, if that's what you want to call it." But I just find that the term has been misused for so many thousands of years that it's become a meaningless term. And it doesn't help to understand the complexity and multiplicitous notions of human life I'm trying to present.

JILL: In my teaching, I certainly would welcome the presentation of your taxonomy. You've got 84...

Landy: That's right--84 roles and a number of subtypes.

JILL: And next week it'll be 88. [Both chuckle.] Is there any possibility that at one point if your life you will make what could be used as a reader, with you discussing a role, then putting a passage from a play that captures the role.

Landy: That's a nice idea. What I do in the full taxonomy--which appears in my book called Persona and Performance: The Meaning of Role in Drama Therapy and Everyday Life--is give for each role type at least three examples from dramatic literature. In some cases, I give many more. My three examples were chosen from different periods to show that there is continuity over history of the role type appearing. I don't necessarily provide a speech from each character that embodies the qualities of that type. However, it would be very easy to look at Cassandra's speech or Lady Macbeth's speech depending on what role type we're looking at. I mentioned Carol Pearson who wrote The Hero Within. She also co-authored a larger, more academic book analyzing many of the women characters in world literature from a feminist point of view. In that work, she gives actual speeches from novels, plays and so forth. But a reader based on the taxonomy--that would be fun to do. I would need to know more about the target audience and the specific purpose. We've been talking about purposes this morning: that is, using role in creative writing classes. I will give that some more thought and see if anybody is interested.

JILL: Why do you focus on dramatic literature instead of all literature.

Landy: I could focus on several forms of literature--essays, stories, novels, poems. But I'm a drama therapist. One thing that I've been doing for a number of years is developing theory in drama therapy. My question is always how do the therapeutics come out of poetics, what is the basis of drama therapy in the art form. By reviewing drama, I was looking at the root source of drama therapy. My sense is that it would be just as easy if not easier to review novels or short stories--or even essays, although that might be a little far afield. A great inspiration for me was Vladimir Propp's book The Morphology of the Folk Tale in which he analyzes Russian folk tales, not necessarily according to role, although that's part of his morphology, but theme and structure were more important to him.

JILL: Do you think roles are universal, that is, characteristic of the basic human mind, or are different roles brought out in different cultures?

Landy: Both. I think they are both universally and culturally determined. Some are more universal than others--heroes and villains, fools and wise people, victims and victimizers. But each culture has its own particular way of conceiving these roles, and perhaps have other roles that are not in my taxonomy. I have this fantasy of some day doing a taxonomy based on Eastern forms of theater. My sense is that that would be easier to do than Western theatre because Eastern theatre is more about types; it's a more presentational form whereas Western forms are less abstract, more psychologically realistic. Especially since the advent of Chekhov in the late nineteenth century and Stanislavsky in the early 20th. I have had a number of students from Asian countries such as Korea, China and Japan who read my work and say, "Well, this is so clear in Korean drama or Peking opera or Japanese Noh theatre." I'm not a scholar of those forms, so I can't precisely say how this is the case, but I am certain that there is a certain universality in the role types, and also that each culture would value certain aspects more than others.

JILL: "Revenge" in our culture is condemned, and in some cultures it is held up as an integral part of the code of honor. Does that present a problem for the theory of roles or is it an example of what you just said?

Landy: From a universal point of view, I would say that all human beings have the potential to understand and play the role of the vengeful one, the avenger. But some cultures choose that role as more prominent than others. So that if you are in a Sicilian culture and someone killed your father, there is no question that you would avenge that death. Whereas if you are in high society in Minneapolis from a very Northern European culture, you would have other ways of revenging. But there would still be a revenge going on. You would bring in the police, hire a lawyer, etc. There's still the same dynamic that cuts through all cultures. If someone does something to you or your family, you respond in a certain, culturally determined way. The important fact is that you will respond. There's a part of you that wants to get back, wants justice.

JILL: There is, of course, an emphasis on multiculturalism in our society at the present. Coming from the South, I grew up under the influence of very negative features of what I guess would be called culture in a broad sense. For instance, racism. How do you distinguish between the positive and negative aspects of a given culture? Is this something you could deal with in a university class? Or is it too volatile at this time?

Landy: I don't think it's too volatile, because when you think about it, a lot of published literature is about that very thing, about conflict within a culture. And there're two ways of viewing conflict. One is from an internal point of view, that is, about someone who is at war with himself or herself. Or in an external way, that is someone who wants something that another person also wants. And this also holds true for cultural clashes. Southern writers like Truman Capote, Walker Percy, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams write about issues of aggression and fear and faith and passion as they clash with passive and naive, lost and impotent tendencies in people. These issues stem from their cultural experiences. Any student from grade school up knows that literature is about conflict--between races and genders and points of view. But very few people have examined these conflicts in themselves. My sense is that the reading, writing and discussing of literature is one way of looking at those conflicts. And one way of approaching these sensitive issues is couching the issues in terms of the roles involved. Rather than blacks and whites, it could be good guys and bad guys at a very basic level. Why do we need bad guys? Why are they so attractive? Are there moral issues involved in the clash between good guys and bad guys? These issues are sensitive on the one hand, but on the other they're known by everyone of every age. Even young children. I have a three-year-old who says, "Daddy, that's a bad guy!" Now what does it mean to be a "bad" guy. In his terms it might mean something out of Power Rangers, which is the rage these days. But it also might be a figure out of his nightmares. Very young children have nightmares all the time in which there are dark figures. Now, who are these dark figures? Who will they become later? In certain cultures, they will become the Blacks, the Jews, the Arabs, the poor, the homeless. A culture will determine to some degree who those bad guys are. And to discuss these issues with students through their reading and writing seems to be completely relevant.

JILL: One makes value judgments on the grounds of which one condemns racism or the other "isms." What is the source of that ground? Is that a role?

Landy: Yes. The role is that of the judge, the critic. And we all have a judge and a critic inside of us. We might value them differently depending on our culture or our particular personality dynamic. Some people's critic is very strong; and some people's judge is very strong. Therefore we see these people as very moralistic. There are a lot of teachers who tell their students that racism is bad. My judge tells me that that's only part of the story. My critical part tells me that--rather than saying that this is good and that is bad--why not say that there's a part of all of us that judges other people, and makes decisions on very limited information about a human being. There's a part of all of us that needs a bad guy to make us feel good. Taking that point of view, you will see how much richer that becomes than a teacher who takes a moralistic position and says that this is good and that is bad. Racism is bad. Sexism is bad. As decent human beings we know this, and there are laws that protect people from it. However, saying that doesn't address the issue that we all psychologically need to confront constantly: and that is, "What do we do with our bad feelings?" If someone acts badly or says something that we deem immoral, do we make them go away? Or do we repress them or force them someplace else so that they have the potential to act out violently at a later time? I think that's wrong. What needs to be done is to air these issues. They have to be given some kind of a safe form through, let's say, writing. Or some kind of safe enactment. If that happens, people will have less need to act out violently in real life. If I can write about my feelings of anger toward all those "undesireables" who kill people on subway trains, then I don't have to sit with these feelings.

      One advantage of engaging in literary dialogues, readings, talking, thinking or writing is that we have a chance to express some of the more negative feelings that we learn from our culture, from our parents. It's that expression that seems to me most healthy, rather than some judge or moralistic figure saying that this is bad, and we shouldn't talk about it; that racism is bad and therefore it's a taboo subject. Of course, racism is bad, but what's worse is to deny a dialogue around one's racist feelings. And we all have them--every human being has them to some degree. Some of us are fortunate in that it's less dominant in our personality. That's great. But some of us have it more by virtue of having parents who behaved in a certain way, or growing up in a certain society at a certain point in history.

JILL: Suppose one of your students was a member of a subculture in the United States that valued the demonic, the antichrist, things that seem to me quite negative. And the guy gets up and he says, "I think that this is right. I have no problem with it. These are my values." What would you do?

Landy: My feeling is that we all have stories to tell. Sometimes the stories are hard to listen to. But I try to create an atmosphere where people are allowed to tell the stories they need to tell. However, if a story is told that is extremely hateful and hurtful to other people's sensibilities, then I think that those other people or I as a teacher have a responsibility to say, "You have a right to tell your story, but in this particular forum it's hurtful. So therefore is there another way to present your story--maybe through writing. Maybe you'll write it for me, and I'll read it as a story. And when I tell a story--as dark and as demonic as it might be, that is not the whole of who I am. That's a part of me speaking. And maybe I have other stories. Or will have other stories, or had them in the past." So that I would try to get across the idea that a human being is full of many stories, is peopled with many roles. And what one presents at one time is a piece of that. It might be a big piece.

      Now let me tell you another anecdote from the point of view of being a therapist. A number of years ago, I got a call from a lawyer who said that his son had joined a religious cult, one that I will not name here. I didn't know much about the group, although I had heard of it. My image of the group was that they were mainly underclass people who had hard lives but felt transformed having joined this particular group. Well, this particular lawyer was high-powered, white, upper-middle class. He basically hired me to deprogram his son. I told him that I didn't have experience in this area, but that I was a drama therapist and that I would be happy to meet with his son. The young man turned out to be about fourteen years old, a very nice person. We established a good working relationship. He trusted me; I enjoyed him. The mother and father were divorced. The father was living in the city, and the son was living with his mother in the suburbs. What the father hadn't told me was that the mother also was a member of the group. I met with the mother and the son. She was a tremendous anomaly: an affluent person, Jewish, well educated, yet spouting the rhetoric of a fundamentalist Christian group whose ranks seemed to me to be made up primarily of poor people of color. As I said, I didn't know what the group stood for, but the boy was educating me. I was completely accepting of whatever he said. As a therapist, I have to remain fairly neutral. I didn't judge it. Until one day, I realized that he was interested in getting me to not only hear his story, but to accept it as the truth.

      One day, he brought me the group's bible that spoke of a time that's coming soon when there will be no death, no suffering. All people--that is, all believers--will turn into basically saints. Animals will give up their aggressive instincts, and there will be a paradise on earth. I stayed up half the night reading the book that he had given me. I was horrified. There were images of book-burning that reminded me of Nazism. At that time, I was a little younger and less experienced, and I made a grave error. The judge part of me became activated. I judged the group as a cult and a proselytizing, fascist, mind-controlling organization. The instant I did that, I lost my client. I lost any ability to be useful to him as a therapist. And indeed within a short time, he was gone.

      Earlier, I had called up his father and reassured him that his son was a good kid. I had said that he wasn't in deep trouble, that he was trying to work through a lot of problems, and that he, the father, and his son needed to talk more. I had facilitated a father-son dialogue. But once I judged the son, once I decided the group's teachings were demonic, he was lost to me. My ability to maintain a therapeutic bond was lost. I learned a lot from that. I never made that mistake again. I carry around wounds from that experience, because I know that I could have been a lot more helpful than I was. I don't know what has happened, but I do know that during the treatment, the father and son were talking more, and I hope that continued.

      Anyway, I think the same thing is true in teaching. That when someone has a scary or demonic point of view, it needs to be expressed in some way. But within a boundary so that other people aren't hurt. Again, that boundary could be, "Okay, let's write about it. Let's you and I engage in a dialogue around it with the hope that maybe another voice could be found." People are on many journeys in their lives. Sometimes, people need to go to very dark places.

JILL: You found the ideas in the book negative.

Landy: Right.

JILL: Do you think those ideas were negative for the son as an individual?

JILL: Do you think those ideas were negative for the son as an individual?

Landy: That's the best question you could have asked. No, they weren't. They weren't at all negative for him. He needed those ideas. First, it bonded him with his mother. Second, it gave him a social group and a belief system that made sense to him at that time, and it helped him over the problems that he was going through. One of which was that he was learning disabled and having a very difficult time in keeping up with his classmates. The group told him, "You don't have to worry about your problems. You just have to be what God and the group wants you to be." They wanted him to drop out of school and become some kind of technician. His father was horrified. But that was the son's need at that time. He couldn't hack the regular academic routine. He needed some simple answers. He was sitting on a lot of complex feelings--broken family and his own sense of powerlessness. This group really empowered him and gave him a reason to exist.

JILL: Suppose that such a group had not only provided identity, comfort, warmth, companionship, and understanding, but had called for something extreme--like human sacrifice--how would you have dealt with that?

Landy: If I felt that a client was engaged in some activity that was either illegal or immoral or hurtful of other people, then I would feel an obligation to do something about it. I would start by speaking to his parents and maybe teachers or school counselors. If his actions involved hurting children or stealing animals and killing them, I would need to consult with appropriate experts in adolescent treatment, social service and criminal justice.

JILL: But in terms of his adjustment to the world, you wouldn't have attempted to convince him that this is wrong.

Landy: No, I wouldn't. Let's take another example, a more modest one. It's very popular at the moment for certain kids to pierce their bodies, which I find personally reprehensible. But if someone appeared in class with twenty earrings, I might not want to look that person in the eye, but I wouldn't judge it, at least publicly. I would be very careful about that. I had a good friend some years ago who was a minister in a parish in a part of the city known for its alternative lifestyles. Some people would appear in church wearing heavy leather, chains and tattoos. On the one hand it was colorful, but on the other hand it was problematic for more conventional people. But she was very open. They were welcome. I take the same attitude. Unless, again, I see that harm to others is involved.

JILL: And that is the ground.

Landy: The ground is ultimately the boundary of harm to themselves or other people. Now what gives me the right to judge that? I don't know. I go by experience. I might not always be right. If someone is piercing their body, you might say that they are hurting themselves. But they might answer, "It's my body. This is what I need to do." In that case, I'd have to back down. It's different when others are being victimized or when an individual is banging his head against a wall.

JILL: Then you would not think in terms of roles but of immediate action.

Landy: No, that's not quite right. It's also about roles. I would say that that person is in a very self destructive role at that point. Or a very violent role. One thing I should mention to you is that I'm about to engage in a major research study on violence. I personally need to understand what violent impulses are all about. And I even look at violent behavior in terms of roles. Self-destructive roles are very clear. I see them all the time in therapy, as well as everyday life. If someone is in a self-destructive role, I can take on a helper role or an intervening role to do something about it.

JILL: If you encounter such a person in a, say, sadist role...

Landy: I'd want to stop it. I'd take on a police role, an authority role. Or I might take a friend or helper role, and say, "Look, this is not acceptable behavior." There are many roles I could take to try to stop it.

JILL: You're talking about your assuming other roles in dealing with clients.

Landy: That's right. It's very interesting because in everyday life, in the face of extreme circumstances such as with a sadist or a cult, it's scary and difficult for me to know which role I should go into. Most people would just back off, just walk the other way--which is also a role, the escapist role. Because most people can't deal with extreme behavior. But if you're a teacher or a therapist, you can't just run away. You have to do something. Or rather, you can run away, but it's more valuable to try to find a part of you that can respond in a more useful way.

JILL: Let's turn, for a moment, to the relation between sociodrama--which you have written about--and your taxonomy. Is the center of that relationship "viewpoint" or...

Landy: Sociodrama is one of those large, catch-all phrases which means many things to many people. As a discipline, sociodrama was invented by Moreno, who also invented psychodrama. It represented a move into a kind of typology. Psychodrama is not concerned with role types. Basically, in psychodrama, one plays oneself in relationship to significant others in one's life, played by others in the group. So, if I have a problem with my mother, I cast someone in the group to play my mother. Not the mother as a type, but my mother. And I play myself in all my complexity. So the role of myself is not a prototypical role, but rather me as an individual.

      Sociodrama is Moreno's way of saying, "Well, sometimes there are issues that are socially or culturally based that can be explored better in terms of types." Instead of Robert Landy and his mother, we'll have sons and mothers, or blacks and whites, or men and women. But Moreno never developed any system of roles. I conceive of sociodrama as a way of activating the system of roles in a systematic way to explore a particular social issue. I was involved in former New York City Mayor Ed Koch's "Reach for Speech" project a few years ago aimed at getting people to use oral communication skills better. Koch was looking for a unique approach, and to make a long story short, I suggested doing a sociodrama project where each community was to define an important social issue. We used ten junior and senior high schools in the New York metropolitan area. Let's say that in Brooklyn, the issue was teenage pregnancy. The teacher in the class would work with the students to determine some important characters in the community that work with this role. Those characters might be the pregnant girl, her boyfriend, the father and mother, the priest, the counselor, the teacher, etc. The students began to research actual people who were in these situations and how those people used language to address their problems. And they began to use the language that their role types would use. And in class, they developed a critical perspective, asking "How could this pregnant teenager use her language to communicate with people better and get her needs met more efficiently?"

      For example, Susan, a high school student, has met several times with Nancy, a 15-year-old high school drop-out who is three months pregnant. In speaking with Nancy, Susan becomes aware of Nancy's inability to articulate her needs to those who might be in a position to help. In class, Susan plays the role of Nancy, speaking as she does, in relation to another student who role-plays Nancy's mother. The class analyzes Susan's enactment and discusses ways to alter her speech so that Nancy can be seen as a more powerful figure. In playing Nancy in an alternate way, Susan is able to convince the mother to help her seek emotional and medical support.

JILL: In very many schools and colleges in this country, there is at least the potential for discrimination against ESL students as well as teachers. ESL teachers are not really regarded as teachers by their faculty colleagues in history, chemistry, math, economics--you name it. This attitude is shared by students who are native speakers of English. Nor do these "regular" teachers and students have a better attitude toward ESL students, who are often, I think, considered as generally in some sort of "remedial" category. That attitude is seldom if ever brought up. What you have said about roles and sociodrama lead me to think it might be a good idea to focus on these negative mindsets. Or do you think it might be better to let sleeping dogs lie?

Landy: There's a positive way and a negative way of looking at the problem. The positive way is that it's very powerful to be bilingual--to have two languages instead of one. Most Americans have only one, especially twenty years after we've done away with most language requirements in our schools. We can explore why it's powerful to have two languages, and the ways it affects how one thinks about the world. So that in a class, if someone were bilingual in English and Russian--we might examine ways that one plays out certain emotional roles, what I call "affective" roles, in each language.

      I'll give you an example. I lived in Portugal and I learned a little Portuguese. And we would watch these soap operas on television. Now the Portuguese culture is very different from the Brazilian culture, even though they both speak the same language. If you watch a Portuguese soap opera, everybody is very subdued. But if you would watch a Brazilian soap opera, everybody is extremely passionate. It was almost as if a different language was being spoken. Now, I found that fascinating. There seems to be a connection between culture, speech and behavior. I have some Russian students, and I find them extremely passionate. So when we're dealing with certain issues, a given role will be expressed far more passionately than by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. These cultural and linguistic differences become very powerful. Instead of viewing a bilingual group in a negative light, it can be seen in a very positive light. And not only are these students learning a new language, they are learning a new culture or perhaps a second sub-culture. Maybe several sub-cultures. And that can be tremendously powerful because it increases one's knowledge base. It increases one's personality structure as one takes on a new role. The Russian immigrant is not losing the Russian language and culture, but rather, taking on yet another way of speaking and thinking and making sense of things.

JILL: And in several years, you will embody two cultures, and that is one source of your strength.

Landy: So the notion of America as the great melting pot can also be seen as a stew in which each ingredient contributes to a whole. You can see the meat and the vegetables as each being absolutely necessary to the totality. Each has its own flavor. But if you cook it too much, it all becomes too much of the same thing. I think that's the real danger of bilingual, bicultural experience. Namely, that one will lose what one came in with, in the name of melting in this great pot. The issue is that of giving up one's identity. And that's what a lot of older immigrants have done. I think that the most successful families are the ones who can retain the old while taking on some of the new. I come from an East European Jewish family, and my parents' generation wanted to let go of the original language--they used a bit of Yiddish at home but none of the original languages of their parents--Polish, Russian, German. I try to come back to as much of those traditions as I can. I learned German and have spent time in the countries of my grandparents.

JILL: Let's talk a little about the imagination as such. As long as I don't think about it, the concept of the imagination seems fairly intact to me. But when I start thinking about a formal definition, everything begins to slip through my fingers. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Landy: I've thought about this a lot. Let me speak about the imagination in the context of drama. I define drama as a process in which one is living simultaneously in two realities--the reality of the everyday and the reality of the imagination. So that I am both myself and not myself at the same time. When I'm in a play and I take on the role of Hamlet, I am Robert Landy and Hamlet at the same time. Robert Landy is grounded in the everyday; Hamlet is a fiction, something that has been created by an artist to embody certain universal truths and so forth. Hamlet is a pure work of the imagination. When I take on that role, I am living in that imaginary realm.

      The reason I say that drama therapy is very powerful is because, as the actor in the play, I am able to participate in two realms at the same time. If I can live in those two realms, I can also move out of them. I can take off my costume and I am Robert Landy, and, as such, I can reflect upon Hamlet's dilemma. I can say, "Okay, Hamlet's in a tough situation. His father has recently died and something's rotten in the state of Denmark." And then I can say, "Now, there's something in my real life as Robert Landy that's similar to that," and by reflecting on the imaginative role of Hamlet, I have a way to make greater sense of what's going on in my real life. Maybe my father recently died. Maybe there are situations in my school that are horrible, and I can't really deal with them. Maybe I'm confused about my mother. The point is that for me, imagination is a realm, an actual place. It sounds ironic because it seems to be the antithesis of reality. But it's not the antithesis of reality--it's another reality. It's the reality of metaphor and art. It's an expressive reality. It's a place where we can go in our dreams and fantasies at any time. In an English literature classroom, or a writing classroom we can reflect upon that other reality and look at the way that writers and artists have expanded our understanding of everyday life through their flights of fancy, of imagination. And, like them, we can practice our journeys into the imagination. That's how I conceive of the imagination. It's the place where images reside. It's the home of images, the home of fiction. And that reality of fiction and images and metaphors is not of any lesser value than the reality of our daily lives. It might be of greater value. It's a very special place where all human beings can and do go at least every night of their lives and in most of their waking life too when they're not immediately directed on a task of everyday life.

JILL: Why does our culture insist on stifling the imagination?

Landy: Because we live in a positivistic culture that believes in cause and effect, a culture that only values research that can prove in a scientifically verifiable way that this happens when you do that. Because we live in a culture that springs from the industrial revolution and values products and answers over process and questions. We are in a non-magical culture, a non-spiritual culture. That's why so many people turn to cults--searching for that lost spiritual quality. These are some of the known reasons. I think that there are more subtle reasons. Within families, you'll also find a denial of inner life. Many parents do not really care about the feelings of their children as much as the children getting on with their lives, not bothering them, going to good schools, doing better than they did. And we live in a culture that's completely caught up in the need to be economically successful. It's hard to find room for the more imaginative parts of existence. You'll notice that whenever legislators want to cut funds, the first sources they'll turn to are the arts. It's like saying, "Okay, I need to cut out one realm of existence, so let's cut out the imagination. Maybe it doesn't exist anyway. It's not that important." By doing that, one cuts out the very soul of the human being. And that's pretty dastardly work.

      One of the most frightening images we all live with as we approach the 21st century is that of the terrorist--the one who can commit a senseless act of violence at any time, in any place--one who is so angry and powerless that the only way to be seen and acknowledged is through striking out at innocent people. What if those who, out of economic, political and psychological reasons, are potential terrorists could be allowed to express their feelings in imaginative play? In art? In dialogue with others of differing life circumstances? What if their imaginations were challenged and stimulated and acknowledged by parents and educators and therapists and politicians? Wouldn't we all rest easier? Wouldn't our everyday lives feel more hopeful and progressive?


Borisoff, Deborah and Robert J. Landy. (1988) Reach for Speech: A Guide to Teaching Oral Communication Skills through Sociodrama. New York City Board of Education.

Landy, Robert. "The Concept of Role in Drama Therapy," The Arts in Psychotherapy, 17: 223-230, 1990.

-----. (1994) Drama Therapy: Concepts, Theories and Practices, 2nd ed. Springfield, IL.: C.C. Thomas.

-----. "The Dramatic Basis of Role Theory," The Arts in Psychotherapy, 18:29-41, 1991.

-----. "The Taxonomy of Roles: A Blueprint for the Possibilities of Being," The Arts in Psychotherapy, 18: 419-431, 1992.

-----. (1993) Persona and Performance--The Meaning of Role in Drama, Therapy and Everyday Life. New York: Guilford, and London: Jessica Kingsley, 1993.

Landy, Robert and Deborah Borisoff. " Reach for Speech--Enhancing Communication Skills through Sociodrama," English Journal, 6:68-71, 1987.

Pearson, Carol. (1989) The Hero Within. N.Y. : Harper San Francisco.

Pearson, Carol and Katherine Pope. (1981) The Female Hero in American and British Literature. NY: R.R. Bowker and Co.

Propp, V. (1968) Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd ed. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

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